West of Lake Gardens

West of Lake Gardens

Part of Ep. 1701 Places to Visit

Shelley Ryan tours Manitowoc's West of the Lake Gardens with head gardener and horticulturist Don Cisler. The path garden includes heliotrope, blue lobelia and lisianthus. Roses include Queen Elizabeth and Red Hot Sally. The formal Mae West Garden features hot colors and vivacious curves. The Garden is private and open to the public from frost to frost, 10 am to 5 pm, weather permitting.

Premiere date: Feb 28, 2009

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley:
We are at West of the Lake Gardens.  This wonderful place is on Lake Michigan in Manitowoc.  I'm with the head gardener and horticulturist, Don Cisler.  This is a hidden gem.  I had no idea that this was here.  What do you have?

Don:
Six and a half acres.

Shelley:
Tell me about this place.

Don:
The property was purchased in 1934 by John and Ruth West.  Mr. West was the chief executive officer at one time of the Manitowoc Ship Building Company.  Mrs. West had her garden.

Shelley:
This was her garden?

Don:
Well, it didn't start off like this.  It started right here in the path garden.  We utilized the path of the wheelbarrow operation as they were clearing the property of quack and thistle.  It started with 100 tulips on either side.  That evolved to over 30,000 tulips throughout all of these beds.

Shelley:
Boy, it doesn't look like this now, though.  What a beautiful blend of pinks and blues.  From Ruth West in the '30s how do we come to you here, now?

Don:
We are privately owned and operated by the West Foundation.  It's a philanthropy that John and Ruth had set up back in the 1950s.  I've been fortunate enough to be here.  I help design the gardens, is what I do.  And John West's contribution to all of this was his picture taking.  There's a slide library that I'm able to refer to.  That is where I get a lot of my ideas and enthusiasm as far as putting this garden together.

Shelley:
So when both John and Ruth died, that was about when?

Don:
Mr. West passed away in 1989, and Mrs. West in 1990.

Shelley:
They had left these gardens but they also left funds for people like you to carry it on.

Don:
Well, very much so.  The gardens, as you see them, are very much as Ruth left them.  The bones of the garden are very, very much what you see today is what Ruth had here.

Shelley:
Using the slides.

Don:
Then I can keep it authentic, at least in my head.  We can start off with the sunken garden.

Shelley:
That's one of my favorite spots.

Don:
And Ruth enjoyed pink and blue.  It's just one of these things that carry on, I guess.  We try different color combinations.  It's just one of the things that worked.

Shelley:
When you were upgrading the sunken garden did you use old slides to capture color combinations she liked?

Don:
Exactly.

Shelley:
What's your favorite spot in this place?

Don:
Right now, my favorite spot is the path garden, where it really started.  I just like the pinks and blues of this.  It's a challenge to use two color combinations and come up with enough different plant material to keep it exciting.

Shelley:
I see the heliotrope in there.  I see the butterflies also seeing it.  The smell of that is gorgeous.  You've got other flowers that are just outstanding.

Don:
There is a blue lobelia that is a very nice one.  Again, a very interesting plant is the poor man's rose, or lisianthus.  Always one of my favorites.  You'll see three different colors in this one.  There's white with a blue edge, a blue and a pink.  It all looks like it's on the same plant.

Shelley:
I noticed that.

Don:
When I plant them up I put three different colors in that same pot and get them to grow like that.

Shelley:
Sneaky!  They look great.  This garden is kind of famous for the roses, too.

Don:
Right, down the center, we have the Queen Elizabeth rose.  It's the first granda flora rose, introduced in about 1955.  The rose garden itself, we have a rose garden that contains 164 roses 38 different varieties this year.  Then we'll go into the red and white garden, which is right around the corner from the rose garden.

Shelley:
That's got to be a challenge.  That's based on slides that said red and white.

Don:
At one time, it was the white garden.  At some point, it was all white.  Then it changed to the red and white garden.  That is a challenge.  There's only so many plants that you can use.  What I enjoy here is the Red Hot Sally.  It's a very good performer.  This particular one is Red Hot Sally II.  It's a little more compact than the original a little darker leaves.  But at the same time, it's a very good performer.  I change up the supporting cast a little bit, if you will.

Shelley:
You have to, sometimes.

Don:
Or it's going to get very boring from year to year.

Shelley:
The colors just pop.

Don:
The colors here, the Mae West Garden.  It's not named for relatives of Ruth and John.

Shelley:
I wondered about that.

Don:
It's named for hot colors and vivacious curves.  That's what we're trying to do here.  The hotter the better.  I'll use some pinks, purples, oranges and anything that clashes, I'll throw that together.  But at the same time, we remain a very formal garden.  You'll notice the edging.  Twice a week, we go through with a gas-powered edger and the gardeners clean up behind me.  The entrance to the formal garden and then finally, the formal garden.

Shelley:
The formal garden is with the edges.  And it's got very precise patterns.  So it's completely different from this wild color that's out here.

Don:
Exactly, and this is one of the few areas that John West had a hand in.  He had a blueprint design of the knot garden itself.  We refer to it as the "pretzel" because it sort of looks like a pretzel.  It was designed to be a love knot.  I believe it was a gift for Ruth.  When he changed this garden area, it was a knot garden.

Shelley:
What a wonderful legacy.  Is this open to the public? 

Don:
Yes, the gardens remain privately owned and operated by the West Foundation but we open the gardens to the public for viewing from frost to frost, 10am to 5pm, weather permitting.  Everybody that comes is an invited guest.

Shelley:
Thank you, this is beautiful.

Don:
You're welcome, thank you.

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